The news announced in Parliament this week, that a deal has been struck to redevelop the White Rocks area, is not unprecedented. The site has been up for grabs for generations. And this time may well be the right time. Gone are the Nationalists’ fancy notions of a sports village. We now have what we know works: a luxury residential development which, judging by the enthusiastic description in the media, looks like it is carved straight out of a luxury, Middle Eastern, gated waterfront community and implanted on garigue.
It is not likely that anyone living in Malta today will be able to afford to move into this new gated community when it opens. Obviously this is an awful generalisation. But let’s just put things into perspective.
At the high end of the market, three-bedroom penthouse apartments in Gżira are being sold for €1.2 million, or rented for €3,000 a month. What the tenant pays in a day is almost double what the average Maltese worker earns.
A red carpet is being laid out for the top one per cent from Ta’ Xbiex, through Gżira and St Julian’s, past Pembroke and all the way up to White Rocks. And by this mean I mean the top one per cent of income earners in the world, not the richest people in Malta who, by comparison, frankly look like paupers.
The way property development in Malta is going, issues related to the environment are no longer among the worst excesses of the building carousel. The darkening shadows cast by tall towers; the traffic paralysis and suffocating congestion; the overuse of land space; the building waste; the disappearance of urban open spaces; the noise, heat and dust; the carbon footprint; the excessive consumption of scarce water; the changing skyline; the cultural and architectural anonymisation: all these remain pressing issues.
But even as these issues continue to be ignored and unresolved, despite 40 years of campaigns by local environmentalists, a greater reality lurks beneath.
Much was made in 1979 when the military barracks and residences used by colonial rulers were inherited by the Socialist government of the time. For years, Dom Mintoff’s party had railed against the injustice of Maltese territory being declared out of bounds for Maltese people. The British military reserved Pembroke and Tigné for its own, and this was deemed unacceptable behaviour by the self-appointed decolonisers.
When the British military decamped, the local thugs stepped in to loot and pillage, and once they had had their fill, the denuded barracks were offered up as social housing units by the government of the day. This was the physical manifestation of decolonisation: the redistribution of property and wealth wrongfully appropriated by the colonial powers.
The purely military nature of our colonial experience was providential. The redistributive rhetoric of our Mugabe could not be applied to agriculture or mineral resources. The country’s economy could not be destroyed by the repossession of colonised assets redistributed to cronies, incompetents and criminals.
But even had the economic consequences of redistribution been catastrophic – in a way they could never have been, given how little there actually was to redistribute – the narrative that the people of a country should not have to tolerate being barred from choice chunks of their territory by foreign colonisers is very compelling.
You’re as unlikely to gain entry to the new White Rocks development as your grandfather could hope to get a house in Pembroke where the Majors and the Colonels lived with their spouses
As compelling as the notion that an economy where social inequalities are so extreme as to create complete detachment between richest and poorest is not only unfair but, more to the point, self-destructive.
How does this apply to what is happening in Malta now?
A considerable portion of our country, in effect, is being reserved for people who have no real connection to Malta. Apartments in the millions are nowhere within reach of first-time buyers, or second- or third-time buyers for that matter. These buildings extend the property ladder to rungs that are unlikely to be scaled in our lifetime.
You’re as unlikely to gain entry to the new White Rocks development as your grandfather could hope to get a house in Pembroke where the Majors and the Colonels lived with their spouses in times preceding the republic.
For this to be dismissed as a case of social envy is to miss the point completely. The dream of moving up social strata has to be remotely achievable. The idea of the ‘American dream’ only applies if you can get there with hard work, resourcefulness, initiative and drive.
But these property developers are looking beyond local demand and supply, even the most ambitious demand potential of Maltese society. We know there’s little chance any of us can make the kind of millions needed to pay for these properties.
These high-end luxury housing units are aimed at the super rich migrant, the self-styled expat or world citizen who can afford to buy shiny, new passports and play Monopoly with property portfolios. They are aimed at people normally domiciled elsewhere, for their speculation or occasional visit, which would only mean that these properties will languish into ghost blocks.
The investment needed to provide these ghettoised postcodes with electricity, water, drainage, landscaping and transport will cause a disproportionate strain on our country’s resources, taking into consideration the cost per capita of providing such a massive investment to extend the infrastructure, only to accommodate the handful of filthy-rich owners these new builds will attract.
The ultimate injustice lies in the fact that it is the taxpayer who will have to stump up for this ‘investment’ in infrastructure. There is now talk of a tunnel connecting this entire stretch on the east coast of the island to improve the quality of life of these luxury residents, who will be tempted to come here precisely because they will be called upon to pay little or no tax and contribute even less to the economy, if they choose to leave their shiny new toys empty most of the year.
These new colonisers, inhabiting the land grown out of the rib that was our country 50 years ago, have not landed by force of occupation. They will come here by invitation. Our land will not be stolen from us, as Mintoff accused the British: we will be selling it to them.
These developments make money for people working in construction, real estate brokers and all those who are enjoying l-aqwa zmien (the best of times) and will choose to believe that the news of the redevelopment of White Rocks means things can only get better.
Though these few will be better off than most, their children – like ours – will be left in the gutter looking up at the stars. It is only then that they will understand that these luxury towers have been permanently situated out of reach of the richest of local buyers, effectively creating swathes of land out of bounds to the natives.
It is only then they will recognise that l-aqwa zmien has slipped through their ancestors’ fingers and fallen in the hands of the dreaded foreign power. By then it will be too late.